Suzi Gerber went plant-based and lost 50 pounds, and cured her chronic pain linked to an autoimmune disease, and during her journey, she started a brand called Plant-Based Gourmet, began working with brands that needed vegan content and consulting, and changed her life for the better. So you might say she lost the animal product and found her true calling. But it’s not the typical tale of discovery since first she had a stint as a vegan at a young age, then modified her views, and then returned to a plant-based lifestyle. Here is her story, including her five tips to help you eat healthier too.
The Beet: So when and why did you go plant-based?
SG: “I actually started out at a young age as an activist. I was a super rabid hard-core PETA vegan in the 90s, during my pre-teens. I started way back when I was about 9 and my sister moved to New York and I would visit her at Columbia, and since she went vegan shortly thereafter, I did too. She didn’t stick with it long but I did, for several years, during most of the 90s. I was going to PETA protests and shouting at people coming out of fur stores.
“Back then it was about animal rights and all I ate were french fries, fried rice and potato chips. There was little else available for vegans to eat, so it was not like today.
“When I think back on that time, all they had for vegans were Tofuti ice cream sandwiches, which were a big thing, and Tofurky, which made these Tofurky hot dogs. They tasted like rubber and were disgusting compared to what these products all taste like now. Then the only milk was soy or rice milk and even those were hard to find. Certainly, vegan or plant-based food was not served in restaurants or cafés. You’d be hard-pressed to find in grocery stores. Boca Burgers then were more like hockey pucks.
The Beet: So when did you discover that vegan food could be more than fries?
SG: “Toward the end of the 90s, Isa came out with ‘Post Punk Kitchen.’ It was the first project I’m aware of from Isa Chandra Moskowitz and she would post recipes on it. So back when blogging was an esoteric thing most people didn’t do it she showed us how to eat this way.
I” stopped being vegan in 2,000 during my final year of high school, when my family doctor said I’ll never be healthy if I stay vegan. I was overweight. And the implicit message was I’ll never be thin. My mother is an accomplished doctor. She is petite and thin and blue-eyed and skinny. And to my mother, who is already worried [about my health], when she hears this she is now really worried that I will never be healthy, and its the end of the world. So overnight I gon on Atkins.
“I am on this diet that requires stacks of deli meat, muscle meat, and almost nothing else. Meat all of the time. That obviously didn’t last very long. I didn’t lose weight on that diet. It is possible that I lost a small amount of weight, but it was so short-lived I don’t even remember it. I definitely carried with me that if I dropped carbs, I should lose weight.
The Beet: So now what? Atkins was not the answer. What next?
SG: “Abandoning that diet I sort of decided to try different things. I had lapsed into an omnivorous diet. Over the next couple of years, I experimented with different diets. As I got older, my tendency was to avoid certain things while still being an omnivore. I tried all the things, since I was living in Manhattan, training with Anthony Bourdain, and when you are doing that, you are not eating anything that looks like a healthy diet. It’s a different approach to food. You focused on quality — not nutritional quality but dietary quality.
The Beet: When did you know that something was wrong in your body?
SG: In my late 20s I started to exhibit some weird neuromuscular side effects. One day I was working at the textile museum and reshelving books and I started to feel an intense feeling. I expected to see my arm swollen to four times normal size since it was in searing pain and I looked down and my arm looked totally normal.
“So I went in for the Cadillac of medical testing: EEGs and EKGs and they looked for all of the inflammatory markers. Most of the tests were inconclusive. But anyone who said they had pain back then, was diagnosed with fibromyalgia. It’s essentially central sensitization. Normal everyday activities that most people do in working out cause what’s known as “micro-tears” in the muscle which then builds stronger muscles and get fitter. These tiny tears are normal and happen when you’re the gym and you work out and you get sore … but with me these were felt so badly and I would be in such pain after doing anything, it felt like my immune system was attacking my cells. Central sensitization means your system is receiving all these pain signals at the same time and they are unbearable. So someone just barely touching my toe would feel like an injury. My girlfriend just touching my arm felt like major pain.
“The first summer I became chronically ill and by February it was debilitating and I spent the rest of the year basically bedridden. Still, I moved to New York for grad school and nobody thought I would be able to live on my own but I did. I chose an apartment within a block of where I went to school. I had to make those choices.
“Several years later I had tried everything under the sun, every diet and every treatment, and the last treatment I did was a book by Dr. Norman Marcus… End Back Pain Forever. His therapy was the only piece that was marginally helpful. You would go in every week and they would inject lidocaine in the muscles but you had to keep doing it. I even took ketamine, which is really intense. I felt better but it was really extreme, and I didn’t want to keep taking all this stuff.”
The Beet: So that was the final straw? Did you want to find another way?
SG: “Yes! I read an early study about a plant-based diet for autoimmune diseases. I thought: This was new. My husband decided to do it with me. In one week I felt better. We both went plant-based and after years of dealing with pain, it got better.
I had been vegan before but I had done the wrong way, then I went omnivore and that’s when I got sick, but it was when I went on a whole food plant-based healthy vegan diet that I got cured quickly.
“By the end of the second week, I had no symptoms and by the end of one month, I was off my medications, Including morphine, Neurontin and gabapentin, and all the other major narcotics. Vicodin … for the years I had been sick. It was like I had flipped a switch I just didn’t need all this pain medication anymore. I could have been off it within two and three weeks. And I mean entirely. I just didn’t need it anymore.”
The Beet: For anyone in chronic pain this is inspiring. And your body got healthier?
SG: Yes. As soon as I went on my normal diet but a plant-based version, the weight just fell off me. At my peak, I was 210 pounds, and my lowest, I was 140. I had never been lower than 150 in my life. It was unimaginable. Now my weight maintains anywhere from 150 to 155 and I am at a normal healthy weight for my height.
“I was definitely overweight since I weighed 50 pounds more than I do now. But when I went vegan (the healthy way) it just dropped off. The latest thing is now I hate the scale and it’s just about whether I feel or look my best. The priority now has become about being healthy.
“I knew on some level this was better because It came together. … things came together and reinforcing that is the goal,… I have now been a healthy vegan for 8 years. My favorite thing to eat is a plate full of corn and broccoli. other times I’ll use some vegan cheese and make a plate of mac and cheese. I don’t log what I eat. I recognize that whole foods are the goal every day.”
The Beet: Now that you’re healthy what are your 5 tips to help others get healthy too?
SG: “There are some mental hacks that you can use that come from key behavioral theory. The place I start is always: What does the behavioral theory around diet say, to help us implement a new behavior that can show demonstrable changes depending on your goal?
Tip 1: Don’t Expect Instant Results. “What I mean by that is definitely diet will give you ups and downs. And you need to know why you are doing it. Name some long term and short term goals. Having a plan for a short-term goal is important, and envision what that looks like. Don’t just fantasize about eating Twinkies all night. Replace that short term goal with another image. Maybe it’s how you’ll feel in a new pair of jeans or something else that is a reward.
Tip 2: Prepare to prepare. “Set yourself up for success. If you sit down to cook dinner, that’s awesome and healthy and full of fresh vegetables and whole grains, that is a form of self-care. You’re probably going to eat it then but that doesn’t necessarily help you tomorrow. And it’s easy to get off track with a busy day. Use Sunday to prepare. I get an imperfect food box every week and when I open it and unpack it, I do a little bit of prep, like chop the veggies as I unpack the box. So instead of grabbing a frozen pizza out of the freezer, when dinner time rolls around you now have veggies and it’s easier to throw together a healthy rice and pepper dish. I always say: Keep a salad bar in your fridge. This is what restaurants do by the way.
“You can do 30 minutes a day or 3 hours of cooking session on a Sunday. But prepare.
Tip 3: Shop for Success. “Keep a healthy supply of the foods that are good for you on hand. Today, all I had was truffle popcorn, so that is what I ate. I’m not going to beat myself up about it. My priority is to get back to work and to a meeting. But if I had set myself up for success… I would have eating better.
“That means for me, always have a fruit bowl on hand. Reach for a pear, or a piece of fruit. I try to go for foods that have high water and fiber content like fruits and vegetables. They’re more filling, so a pear compared to a banana is more water. The banana will not leave you as full after eating it. The body digests it quicker .. but also the experience is that you will get thirsty before you get hungry, so water is helping to curb appetite. Discover what works for you rather than what you think is healthy.
“Celery a negative food and awesome for filling you up, but if you don’t like celery, you are going to grab the Snickers bar instead. If not celery then figure out what you like to eat that’s healthy: It may be carrots but those have more sugar. But if you will eat the carrots and not the celery then have the carrots on hand. Same thing for fruit: If you will eat the banana and not the apple then have the banana. Otherwise, you’re going to eat the Twix bar.”
Tip 5: Know Your Goals vs Success. “This is a really hard concept to get at first but a really important one. When you say something is healthier or healthy you are comparing it to something else. But if you compare the nutritional benefit to a pear, then the pear has more nutritional benefits from the banana, but only in some categories.
“If your goal is to eat more potassium, then the banana helps more than the pear, but if it’s fiber then it’s the pear. Goals are individual and change hour to hour. But success is not defined by how you adhere to rules. When I think of a healthy diet vs. an optimal diet, a healthy diet is better for you, aiming at a certain set of goals. If the goal is weight loss then getting rid of some carbs works but is it an optimal diet? If you are not able to enjoy life then that is not right for you.
“A lot of diets are aimed at a comprehensive plan, of what you can or can’t eat. If you have high cholesterol you take a statin. But there are nutritional ways to ameliorate damages to your blood vessels, but doctors don’t recommend a plant-based diet because they don’t think you are going to do it. Some doctors believe if they recommend something to you that you will not do that they are setting .the bar too high. So instead they give you a drug.
There is a tool for high cholesterol and hypertension and then there is diet. When we talk about a plant-based diet being the most optimal what we mean is that when you switch you will be able to declare your medical dependence. If the goal is to get off your medication and not see doctors all the time, then aiming for an optimal diet is what I call success. So the differentiation between a goal and success is crucial. You need to set your goal and know how you define success.”
Here’s a Bonus Tip: “Do what I call ‘The Dailies’ which is to take an inventory. Are you able to cook for yourself today? Answer Yes or No. Are you in need of a Netflix and ice cream night? People think you have to be good all the time. But that’s not the case. Most people have a Sunday cheat day and that works for them, but for others, it’s a slippery slope. Do you think that every time you eat a donut its a runaway train? Then put it all on Sunday [and make it the relaxed eating day] so it is not something that takes down the whole ship. But for me, I think you should give yourself permission to cheat, and not stress, because if you should understand it’s a treat, and not an all-day everyday food choice it’s easy to get back on track. So maybe get rid of the anxiety we sometimes get around eating that donut.
“So if you have a cup of coffee, did you also have a cup of water to balance it out. Caffeine and salt both lead to dehydration. So you need to keep an inventory of your day and ask yourself: Have I had enough water today? And if not, the question is what is your strategy for getting water into your diet. You can drink more or you can choose high-water foods or enjoy some sparkling water. I now have a Camelback hydration system, and I drink all day from it. So now my daily intake of water went from 3/4 of a liter to 3 liters. I have it all the time because I love the straw. iI’s my new purse. Anything you can do to make life easier for yourself, just do it.”
And I also do drink Lemon Water first thing every morning. Studies show that having it within 30 minutes of eating is beneficial to your digestion. So now I do that every day.
The dailies are the things you do every day, And they are the difference between short-term success and longer-term success. Give yourself a daily assessment. It’s a mindfulness activity as well. Without saying meditate I would say be thoughtful about your food plan daily.
Suzi Gerber is a chef and the founder of the Plant-Based Gourmet. To pre-order her new cookbook, Plantbased Gourmet: Vegan Cuisine for the Home Chef, click here.